The U.S. military isn't exactly underworked, what with salvaging Afghanistan, helping out Haiti, fighting off pirates, and getting out of Iraq. But now, it has been handed a new mission: leading the campaign to cut back on foreign oil, in the interests of both national security and saving the planet. The Defense Department certainly has the money, the technology, the intellectual capital, and the pull in the marketplace to make or break the environmental movement. And when it puts its top minds on a problem, there's a long track record of world-changing breakthroughs (the Internet, for one). But will the Pentagon really make the move to go green when there's so much else on its plate?
Take Afghanistan. After eight years of combat there -- and despite decades of advancements in alternative power and fuel -- the U.S. military is still waging war as if oil were an unlimited resource, and free. The wind howls at Camp Leatherneck, the Marine Corps' main base in southern Afghanistan. But there are no wind turbines there. The sun beats down more than 300 days per year on the growing array of semipermanent headquarters and piles of corrugated metal shipping containers. But Leatherneck only has a small handful of solar panels, to power a few gadgets. Troops go from one side of the base to the other in clunky old pickup trucks or Humvees that get about 8 miles to the gallon. Nearly 200 diesel generators run constantly. Because of waste, poor insulation, inefficiency, and redundancy, fully 89 percent of the electricity they produce for the base is wasted. It's one of the reasons why the U.S. military is burning 22 gallons of diesel per soldier per day in Afghanistan, at a cost of more than $100,000 a person annually.
Decades ago, the Defense Department was a world leader in developing new sources of energy. In 1961, the Navy commissioned the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Three years later, the sea service began looking into tapping the geothermal energy around its China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in California. But it took 29 years for China Lake's geothermal plant to reach full power. A few Pentagon-backed alternative-power efforts have been more successful: a massive solar array at Nellis Air Force Base and a sizable wind farm at Guantánamo Bay, for instance. Until recently, however, those projects were the exception, not the rule. Energy efficiency has often taken a back seat to other tactical or strategic considerations.
A new crop of green-minded Pentagon leaders has begun ambitious projects to change that. The military R&D arm that paved the way for the Internet is now focusing on algal feedstock for biofuel and next-generation solar panels. One of the world's largest solar-power projects is planned for the Army's main training center, at Fort Irwin, Calif. Billions in stimulus money were spent to green military facilities. Then again, we're talking about transforming an organization that currently consumes a million barrels of petroleum every three days.
The Defense Department in recent years has warned over and over about the dangers of climate change and the risks in relying on unstable petro-regimes. The problem is that where the military uses the most oil -- in fuels that power combat hardware -- it also faces the steepest obstacles to technical and institutional reform.
The Pentagon recently set ambitious targets to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by a third in 10 years. However, that figure exempts the military's bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the jets, ships, and ground vehicles that swallow up 75 percent of the military's fuel supply. A single B-52 bomber, for instance, burns 3,500 gallons of fuel per flight hour. Efforts to green military vehicles have largely flopped. In 2004, the Army abandoned its hybrid Humvee project, supposedly because the electric powertrain wasn't reliable enough. (It rebooted part of the project last year.) In 2006, the Air Force flew just a single B-52 test mission using a synthetic fuel blend developed more than six decades earlier, in Nazi Germany.